It occurred on October 21, 1805, on the the Royal Navy’s HMS Victory about twenty miles off the coast of Spain near Cape Trafalgar. The ship’s Admiral, The Right Honorable Lord Viscount Nelson K.B., was walking alongside his dear friend and flag captain Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy when he was struck by a ricocheting musket ball one hour after the start of battle. During the ensuing three hours, the death of Lord Nelson—which intimately exposed the military hero as affectionate, anxious, commanding and human—has since been immortalized by countless artists in various media. The present lot by Paul Léon Jazet represents one of the finest examples ever to appear at auction.
Paul Léon Jazet made his debut at the Paris Salon of 1872. In the late 1870s he began to mingle military scenes with his Salon contributions and it is his powerful depiction of Nelson and crewmen aboard the Victory that showcases the artist at the pinnacle of his career. Serving as the pièce de réistance among his many military compositions, the fine detail and overwhelming expressiveness seen in the Death of Lord Nelson are masterful examples of the degree of academic skill required by artists exhibiting at the Salon in the late 19th century. It is also a testament to the significance of the highly regarded subject matter, which was reproduced frequently throughout the 19th century. Jazet followed a long tradition of painters (notably Benjamin West, in his iconic Death of Nelson from 1806) responsible for securing the martyrdom of ‘Britannia’s God of War’, Lord Nelson. While in many of these depictions Nelson appears as a Christ-like figure, Jazet’s version succeeds by portraying his humanity. Nelson appears shocked and vulnerable, caught by a handful of concerned crewmen as the battle rages around them. This moment of heroism has been translated into reality—Nelson was not a god, he was a man.
The present lot was initially in the seminal collection of Thomas Barlow Walker (1840-1928) of Minneapolis, which served as the foundation of the Walker Art Center, one of the most-visited modern art museums in the United States. The lumber baron’s art collection, begun about 1875, had acquired an impressive reputation by the end of the century. It was hailed in an 1899 article of Brush and Pencil as ‘consisting of over a hundred pictures by some of the most noted of modern painters, living and dead, the T. B. Walker collection in Minneapolis, Minn., stands very high among private collections in this or any other country’ (C. M. White, A Western Art Collection', Brush and Pencil, Vol. 4, No. 4, July 1899, p. 181). Not surprisingly, the Death of Lord Nelson is illustrated in the article as a highlight of Walker’s 'uniformly fine' collection (fig. 1).
(fig. 1) T. B. Walker home galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota, circa 1917. W. S. Zinn Photographers, Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis